There was a time when I believed that the Lost Cause tradition – a narrative forged by white Southerners in order to defend the Confederate cause, venerate Confederate leaders and rewrite Confederate history – was perhaps the most dangerous mythology circulating today. I no longer think that. For me, the myth of reconciliation has proven much more insidious.
Historians of the American Civil War have long discussed the various strains of memory that emerged in the postwar United States. The Lost Cause is one storyline that gained purchase in the 19th century and still holds sway today among many white Southerners. Another iteration of Civil War memory, however, focused on reconciliation. While this account overlapped with the Lost Cause to a degree, scholars have identified this narrative as facilitating North-South reunion on the basis of shared whiteness. In essence, reconciliationists disseminated the idea that white Northerners and white Southerners could hold each other in mutual respect because each side had fought courageously for sincere (although divergent) principles.
The underbelly of reconciliationism, though, was the tacit agreement to ignore matters of race and slavery. In other words, reconciliationists anchored their reunion in the assumption that one could narrate the story of the Civil War while treating slavery as tangential to the conflict. This was a white man’s war, and brave white men fought it. That more than four million enslaved persons lived as human chattel, or that the Confederacy waged war in order to keep them as such, was merely a footnote in a much larger story.
“True reconciliation emerges from repentance, not from inventing a past worth remembering.”
The reconciliationist narrative is thriving today for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its ability to camouflage itself. Take for example the recent comments of Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, when referencing the 2015 mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Haley was governor of South Carolina when the massacre occurred and in the aftermath called for the removal of the Confederate flag from state Capitol grounds. Now, however, she has insisted that the white supremacist mass murderer “hijacked” the Confederate flag – a flag she claimed people understood as “service and sacrifice and heritage.”
While in one sense Haley’s comments reflect Lost Cause orthodoxy, there is something else going on here, and it is as subtle as it is unsettling. Not only are such interpretations of Confederate flags historically inaccurate, but they also tap into a bizarre mutation of the reconciliationist narrative. By claiming that the battle flag has been “hijacked,” Haley, whose parents are Indian immigrants, has somehow implied that pro-Confederate white Southerners have become the victims of white supremacy.
Whereas the reconciliationist narrative had once ignored the consequences of white supremacy in order to reconcile Northern and Southern whites, it now preaches a unilateral reconciliation between white Southerners and African Americans. This sort of reconciliation – if we can call it that – rests on the same kind of historical misdirection that continues to fuel the Lost Cause. To suggest that whites and blacks are co-sufferers of racism is simply beyond the pale. Nevertheless, reconciliationists have often relied on such false equivalencies, which, by the way, is why many partisans cannot (or will not) distinguish between a monument to George Washington and a monument to Robert E. Lee.
History has become an arsenal, and cherry picking has become the weapon of choice. Perhaps this polarization will change in the future, but that seems unlikely in a modern-day context when Americans politicize our history, gaslight our opponents and galvanize our supporters with conspiracy theories untethered to the historical record (or to reality, for that matter). Reconciliationists decenter race from discussions of Confederate history, choosing instead to focus on the “valor” of white Southern soldiers. In so doing, the reconciliationist mythology distracts from the white supremacist attitudes that birthed the Confederacy.
The staying power of this story speaks to the virus-like nature of racism. Consider for a moment the way a virus like influenza works. Each year many of us get a flu shot. The idea is to protect us from this year’s flu by inoculating us to a previous year’s flu. This is because the virus is always changing. So does racism.
Many whites deny being racist, but this is largely because they feel inoculated to mid-19th-century racism (i.e., slavery) or mid-20th-century racism (i.e., Jim Crow). Armed with a false sense of security, we are susceptible to yet another mutation of the virus, and we manifest telltale symptoms. We equate racial “colorblindness” with anti-racism. We preface our racist comments with the caveat, “I’m not racist, but…” We pat ourselves on the back for “how far we’ve come.” We convince ourselves that the American dream isn’t an American fantasy.
“The reconciliationist narrative is thriving today for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its ability to camouflage itself.”
The most dangerous aspect of reconciliationism is that it assumes an immunity to modern iterations of racism. There is no such immunity. There is only a fight – a never-ending battle against the virus around us and within us.
As Christians, reconciliation is central to our experience and our theology. But while we are called to be beacons of forgiveness, we are likewise called to be models of repentance. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about “white guilt.” This is about forgiving and forgetting. And for a century-and-a-half now, we white Southerners have forgiven ourselves by forgetting our past.
Reconciliation – true reconciliation – emerges from repentance, not from inventing a past worth remembering. The idea that we can redact Confederate history with little or no reference to race – or worse yet, that we can identify ourselves not as perpetrators of white supremacy, but as victims of it – may expose just how truly sick we are.